Installation with car, plants, sand, two lizards, one skunk, one parking meter
320 x 140 x 140 cm

Gråbrødre Torv, Copenhagen

Commissioned by MAD Foodcamp Festival 2011

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Biotope-to-go 2

Click image to enlarge.


The existence of cars shapes the landscape. Cities, networks, and entire infrastructures are created based on cars. Animals and plants that must compete for living space with people and profits will be on the losing side. In a dense cityscape like central Copenhagen, there are ways to accommodate cars, and renting a parking space for one’s car is an efficient way to turn public space into private.
By turning a car into a shelter for wildlife, a small patch of urban space can be taken back by nature as long as the parking fee is paid. In "Biotope-to-go" the highly desired and picturesque urban environment of Copenhagen's Gråbrødretorv was occupied by flora and fauna with the friendly help of the city of Copenhagen, who allowed the artist to establish a temporary parking spot there for one week. In the spot stood a car loaded full of and surrounded by earth, sand, grasses, flowers and other plants, insects, a skunk, and two lizards. They could use the car as they pleased, as their personal space for resting, feeding, digging, and exploring within the framework of the car body.
A note next to the car encouraged passers-by to help protect nature by feeding the parking meter with coins to allow this small biotope to bloom and continue existing in the busiest spot in Copenhagen.

The ecological challenge in Tea Mäkipää’s projects

The visual arts have always been, to a greater degree than poetry, interested in understanding, interpreting and visualising nature's many changing manifestations and the complicated, organic growth processes that have created them. The act of creation in nature and art - despite their differences - have often been compared and the world of art has been characterised as a new form of nature. Especially during the Baroque period individual artists used elements from nature as artistic building materials, for example Giuseppe Arcimboldi (1527-1593) who created portraits from fish, fruit and other vegetables.

It is within garden art - first and foremost in Arabic and English Romantic gardens - that one can most clearly see efforts to protect nature and to be more careful about using its resources whilst creating an earthly paradise. However, it is first during the 1960s that Ecological Art began to appear. American artists were in the forefront - primarily Robert Smithson - and they produced at this time large Land Art projects where the artist’s materials consisted of natural phenomena or of nature itself. At the same time a number of other prominent artists, for example Michael Singer and Alan Sofist, were occupied forming the landscape from the standpoint of nature itself. They are individually quite different, but what they have in common, as Michael Auping commented in 1983, is that their art works “directly or indirectly, reflect the concerns of increasing numbers of biologists, ecologists and legislators attempting to develop a legal ethic that addresses man’s relationship to the land; an ethic that views natural objects, such as trees, mountains, rivers, and lakes but also animals as having a legal right to existence.” They created works in nature and/or restored it, whilst for example, Robert Morris’ built a “Working farm” (1968).

However, at the same time and in the following decades, there were several artists who brought animals into the world of art in order to protect them against the destruction of their habitat and conditions of life by industrialisation, or, as symbols for our time’s gradual destruction of the old cultures, including African and Native American. Animals have quite literally invaded gallery space. One of the most famous examples is Joseph Beuys’ installation from 1974. It was made as an action and entitled 'I Like America and America Likes Me. He spent three days in René Block’s Manhattan gallery with a coyote before being driven straight to the airport and flown back to Germany. The coyote is sacred to Native Americans, however it and American Indian culture as such are endangered. The coyote was used in this artistic action as a symbol of American Indian culture and visualised Beuys’ protest against increasing destruction of it.

More and more artists - especially the artists whose projects are on display today - are working towards finding artistically satisfying solutions regarding the relationship between art, nature and ecology.

All aspects of nature – plants, animals great and small, landscapes, oceans and rivers – are the subjects of an artistic interpretation that demands respect for their uniqueness and their conservation.

Parallels between science and art, and between philosophy and art, have inspired their artistic production. But most of them know, that since the concept never entirely coincides with artistic expression, visual art is able to grasp perspectives or reveal traces and significances that the philosopher and the scientist cannot grasp with their tools alone. The work of art is a visible world full of presence and intensity. In principle it may be experienced by all, irrespective of individual background.

Tea Mäkipää (born 1973) is an outstanding Finnish artist known for her installations, interventions, architectural works and videos. Through them she visualizes ecological catastrophes and an alternative vision of existence. In 2007, she was invited to contribute to the 8th Sharjah Biennial: Still Life – Art, Ecology & the Politics of Change. Her contribution was an artwork called 10 Commandments for the 21st Century, which strongly expressed her ecological activism. Sharjah is "the cultural pearl" of The United Arab Emirates. In the last five years the ruler of Sharjah and his staff have tried, through the world of art and in society as such, to publicise and solve ecological questions. In one of Tea Mäkipää's outdoor installations - called Atlantis - one can see a house with one half submerged under the water of a lake. However, in the other half, which is not submerged, life goes on in the usual way. One can hear both singing and conversations. (Fig. 1). The work symbolises not only the vulnerability of our modern life, but also the endless battle to triumph. Her photographic installation World of Plenty, which was shown at EXPO 2005 in Aichi, Japan, is - as Manick Govinda has expressed it - “a fantastic panoramic, idealistic utopia showing humankind sharing the planet in complete equality to other living species. This vision of living at one with nature is Mäkipää’s hope for the future.” Tea Mäkipää represents what one could call ecological humanism, which emphasises that we are dependent upon our environment - especially nature - and therefore we must protect and respect it. In an article entitled Humanism, she has also presented her view of ecological problems, which she has summarised as following: "The feeling of global guilt connected to frustration and powerlessness can be fought against by introducing the ecological viewpoint and integrating it in all kinds of education.”

The chairman of the successful company Årstiderne (The Seasons), Thomas Hartung, has had the excellent idea to - as he puts it - ”plant art at a food camp”, at the big MAD Food Camp Festival at Refshale Island in Copenhagen. The artistic interpretations of ecological and other climate-related problems have been placed as the absolute top priority. Tea Mäkipäa was one of the invited artists. For this exhibition she has chosen to use an old van to re-establish in the city the natural biotope that has disappeared. She describes her project this way: "Species that have disappeared from urban Denmark, can find a lebensraum inside a car, on a parking lot with the help of small donations by friends of wildlife, who can feed the parking meter. The ecosystem inside the van can be viewed through the windows of the parked vehicle.” On the roof of the van she has put sand in which she has planted sunflowers, asters and lavender. (Fig. 2). On the bonnet are the same plants. (Fig. 3). In the driver’s seat is a skunk surrounded by sunflowers that are planted in a bed of sand. On the backseat creep two lizards surrounded by chrysanthemums and lavender. “The van has” - Tea Mäkipää told us - “to have a sign: Please protect nature and put money in the parking meter. People walking past the ecosystem-filled van will hopefully pay the parking fee and protect the biotope from being towed away by the police.”

This work visualizes in both a clear and impressive way the extent to which people try to dominate and control without respect for the right of animals and plants to maintain their proper place in the urban environment.

Both in this work and in her other projects she has found qualified solutions dealing with the relationship between art and ecology and in a surprising and inspiring way created new art. She has transcended the given boundaries of the present world of art and conquered new cultural spaces. And there she has enabled us to become more active in the efforts to protect nature: organic and inorganic, plants and animals. She has helped us to understand sustainable growth, which benefits both nature and our health, whilst drawing us into a fascinating space of experience that widens our perspective of the known world.

Else Marie Bukdahl. D. Phil. Affiliated professor at the University of Aalborg, Denmark and former president of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.